When my husband and I were getting married, we put a tent and some camping gear on our wedding registry. And rather than just putting a small two person tent on there, we put a six person tent on there, because we knew we wanted to continue camping when we had a family!
Well, we went camping a few times before we had kids, then we had two kids, and had yet to go camping with them. So last fall, we kind of decided on a whim to give it a try! We had the gear, our daughter had been asking about camping from a TV show she had seen, and we wanted to give it a try. So we did!
We had some highlights and some low lights, and learned some lessons to change for the next time, but we were excited to camp again and did so this spring! We are certainly not camping pros and still have lots to learn, but in this blog post I will share some stories from both camping trips, as well as my top tips for camping with babies and toddlers, including:
- Expect the unexpected when camping with kids
- Bring battery-powered or chargeable sound machines when camping with kids
- What kind of bedding to consider when camping with babies and toddlers
- Choose a camp site away from extra traffic
- Prepare for varied temperatures
- Expect your kids’ sleep to be “off” to some extent when camping
1. Expect the Unexpected
Any time you travel, there’s often going to be something that comes up or something that happens that you didn’t quite expect, but when camping, I’d say this is a GIVEN!
We’ve only been camping with our girls twice, so we’re still learning this lesson. On our most recent camping trip, for example, there was a yappy dog in the camp site next to us and we just didn’t think about that possibility. There were also random fireworks that went off at 10 pm, and those are just things we can’t predict.
I was so frustrated at first by the dog barking and the random fireworks, because I didn’t want them to wake our girls. But we just had to laugh, because those things are going to come up when camping – it’s part of the adventure!
2. Bring battery-powered or chargeable sound machines
I always recommend using a sound machine for your baby and toddler’s sleep when at home and when traveling, and that does not change when camping with kids! You never know how noisy or how much of night owls your neighbors will be, or when the birds will start chirping in the morning, or what unexpected events or sounds might come up (like the fireworks!). That doesn’t mean your child definitely won’t wake up to random sounds in the night, however having consistent white noise in the background certainly helps!
For example, when those fireworks went off at 10 pm on our last camping trip, our 2.5 year old amazingly slept through them! Our 4.5 year old hadn’t yet fallen asleep, so we could hear her wiggling around, but she didn’t jump out of her bed like she might have if the sound machine wasn’t on to add an extra distracting noise to focus on.
Most sound machines we use simply plug into the wall, however that won’t work when camping – you need battery-operated or rechargeable sound machines! These are the two we have and have used both time we’ve camped:
HoMedics White Noise Machine
The HoMedics white noise machine can run for 12 hours on four AA batteries! If you plan to camp multiple nights, make sure you bring batteries for each night.
Rohm Travel Sound Machine
The Rohm Travel Sound Machine is another great option, as it runs on a chargeable battery. It, too, will last 12 hours. If you camp multiple nights, just make sure you have a way to charge it during the day (it’s USB) so it’s ready for the next night.
3. Bring some sort of bed for your baby or toddler
Our 2.5 year old still sleeps in a crib at home, and when we travel she sleeps in a pack ‘n play. And we have a six person tent, so we had space for a pack ‘n play! I was thankful we could use the pack ‘n play so that she had something familiar that helped bring consistency to an abnormal sleeping situation, plus I knew she wouldn’t be sleeping on an uncomfortable rock or stick, and she’d stay contained through the night!
Our 4.5 year old does sleep in an open bed at home, however she still moves quite a bit when she sleeps. So not only did I want to ensure she was comfortable (beyond a little camping mat), but I also knew I’d sleep better if she was contained, to some extent. For this reason, we brought our Milliard Portable Travel Bed and it’s perfect for camping! See this blog post for other options for toddler travel mattresses and cots that would work well for camping.
4. Choose a site away from extra foot or car traffic
On our most recent camping trip, we were not able to select our camp site – it was chosen for us when we booked our stay online. On our first trip, however, we were able to choose our site, and we didn’t do so very wisely.
We had a tough time finding a site that would be big enough for our six person tent, so once we did, we settled right there. We were close to the bathroom building, which we thought was great so we didn’t have to walk far with our girls, but what we didn’t think through is that it meant we were right by a very trafficked foot path. Not only did that mean extra noise every once in a while, but random flash lights shining through our tent once we were sleeping!
Something we could not have expected is that our “neighbors” had friends come to visit in the evening, so there were cars coming in and out, which shone headlights right into our tent. That’s not something we would have expected, but this second camping trip our site was at the end of the row of tent sites, so we knew we wouldn’t have traffic driving by. That was a win!
5. Prepare for varied temperatures
Temperature is the piece of camping that is the toughest for us and we have yet to feel confident in navigating the extra warm or extra cool nights.
We took our first camping trip in the late fall, and while the temperature was great during the day, it was much colder at night than we expected and we weren’t as prepared as we should have been. We had fleece pajamas for both girls, as well as their sleep sacks, which I’d always recommend. We borrowed a sleeping bag for our 4.5 year old, so she was totally fine all night, however, we couldn’t put our 2.5 year old in a sleeping bag – there’s no way she’d stay in it, plus that’s a very large “blanket” for her pack ‘n play and it didn’t feel safe.
We did put a fuzzy blanket from home over her, but she didn’t stay under it for long, and it wasn’t warm enough anyway! So come 11:30 pm or so, she woke up and was really struggling to sleep, and I truly think it was because she was so cold – I had a full sleeping bag and I was cold, too, so between my husband and me, we slept with her all night to try to keep her warm. It wasn’t ideal, but we did what we had to do!
Next time we camp in the fall, we won’t go so late into the fall, and I will look into warmer sleep sacks if we have a kiddo in the pack ‘n play. Here is a blog post about different sleep sacks that are helpful for cold weather, and this is where I would start!
Oppositely, our most recent camping trip was over Memorial Day weekend, so it was late Spring and much warmer weather. Once again, I packed the girls’ fleece pajamas and sleep sacks, had a light blanket for each of them, and borrowed sleeping bags again. But between 7-9 pm as they were going to bed, it was still quite warm, even just in their fleece pajamas. The trouble was, I knew it would get cooler as the night went on so I wanted them in their sleep sacks, too.
We scrapped the sleeping bag for our toddler right away, but our 4.5 year old liked the idea of hers, so we simply kept it unzipped as she went to bed.
We thankfully have the Woolino all seasons sleeping bags for both girls, which helps control their temperature, but I was uncomfortable in my shorts and tank top at bedtime, so I knew they likely were, too (though they never said anything). Around midnight, however, it cooled way down, so I then covered them in their blankets and was so thankful they had their fleece jammies and sleep sacks on. Because unlike adults who can simply zip or unzip the sleeping bag, or add or remove a layer, they can’t do so easily yet, so it had me worried.
If we camp in the spring again when it’s warmer outside, we will likely go just a few weeks earlier, but I’d also like to bring portable or battery-powered fans, like this one, to help keep our girls cool while it’s still warm outside.
6. Expect sleep to be “off” to some extent
Even when it’s just my husband and me camping, sleep is off. It’s not quite as comfortable, it’s not home, there are strange sounds, and it’s much brighter. So expect sleep to off for your kids while camping, too!
Our first camping trip was in the fall, so bedtime was actually really easy because it was already dark by 7:30 pm! I laid our 2 year old down, zipped up the tent, and she was pretty good to go! I stayed outside of the tent for a few minutes, as I was unsure of how she would do, and I think she only said, “Mama??” once, and I simply re-assured her I was there using my voice, and she fell asleep just as quickly as she would at home. Same with our 4 year old! I was able to sneak her into the tent about an hour after our two year old, sang her bedtime song, and she was asleep.
Even though it was still pretty dark out, our 2 year old woke up close to 6 am the next morning (her usual was 7 am), so that was a rude wake up (our 4 year old was thankfully able to sleep a bit longer). It wasn’t a fun time to start the day, but understandable when we’re not in our normal sleeping environment!
On our recent spring trip, however, it was incredibly bright until around 9:30 pm, and that made it tough for our girls to fall asleep. Our 2.5 year old went to bed around 7:45 or so (she was asking for sleep at that point!), but she didn’t actually fall asleep until close to 9:30 pm. For a good hour she was simply chatting with herself and playing with her baby, and I think she was just super stimulated by the light and looking around the tent.
After lots of chatter and “play” in her bed, she started getting frustrated (rightfully so!), so I went in there to lay next to her for a while. She was able to lay still and clearly wanted to fall asleep, but between the brightness and the occasional dog bark or train in the background, she was so distracted. It took a very long time for her to fall asleep, so rather than sleeping her usual 12 hours at night, she only slept about 9 hours, but that’s to be expected!
Sleeping while camping will just be different and there’s not much we can do about it. So whether your little one doesn’t usually need help falling asleep and they do this time, or they take an extra long time to fall asleep, don’t sweat it! A few off days or nights will not completely throw off their great sleep skills.
A note about naps:
Let’s just expect that naps WILL be off when camping with babies and toddlers. I suggest trying to plan your long car rides around your little one’s nap time, and bring some sort of carrier or stroller to help them nap while you’re out and about. You could certainly attempt a nap in the tent, but naps are harder than night time sleep, in general, so I personally don’t think I would even try!
On our first camping trip, we wanted to go hiking, and could not imagine our 2 year old taking a nap in the tent shortly after arriving – it’d be way too exciting and new! So we made sure to have a carrier with us for our adventures, and one day she actually slept in the car on the way to our hike, and the next day she fell asleep in the carrier.
Certainly not long and super restful naps like at home, but better than nothing!
It can be so easy to say no to new or unknown adventures, especially when it comes to kids. Having kids always adds an extra piece of planning and extra gear to pack, and I know it can be overwhelming – especially when it comes to sleep! Whether your little one is a great sleeper or struggles with sleep, you can expect something to be off when you’re away, but in my opinion, that’s not a good enough reason to say no!
If you want to be a “family that camps” (like we did!), you’ve got to start somewhere. And if it’s a terrible night or two, you’ll be home soon, and the fun memories will likely far outweigh the sleepy memories!
p.s. We absolutely considered just camping in our backyard for the first time, so if it was truly awful, we could go inside. But we felt like it would have been way too easy to go inside, and then our memories wouldn’t be how fun camping was, but that we had to nix the plan and go inside, and we probably wouldn’t try again for a few more years.
At least when you’re out camping somewhere and it’s your only option, if it’s not a great night, you have all of the sweet memories around it!